There’s an apt evaluation in the first minute of the documentary Mel Brooks: Make a Noise.
“Mel was not interested in the little laugh,” observes writer/director Barry Levinson.
“He literally wanted you to collapse and fall on the ground and can’t breathe.”
If you think back to Mel Brooks‘ most famous movies, such as The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs, History of the World, Part I and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, not to mention the classic TV show Get Smart, Levinson kind of nailed it, I think.
Mel Brooks never was particularly subtle. But his comedy was far from dumb. A lot of it was based upon history and philosophy.
“He is truly an intellectual, which astonishes people,” says Joan Rivers.
That combination of grounded structural smarts and madcap comic stupidity is fully and lovingly chronicled in Mel Brooks: Make a Noise, which airs Monday, May 20 on most PBS affiliates as part of the American Masters series.
This expansive documentary features new interviews not only with Brooks and the afore-mentioned Levinson and Rivers, but also with the likes of Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, Cloris Leachman, Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane, Richard Lewis, David Lynch, Richard Benjamin and Tracey Ullman.
Others who unfortunately have passed away – including notable Brooks collaborators such as Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman – contribute to the doc not only with archival interviews, but also through the numerous clips from Brooks’ best-known and lesser known projects.
Brooks – real name Melvin Kaminsky – is 86 now. He obviously has outlived many of his contemporaries. But when you speak with Brooks today, he still can knock you over with his energy.
“I’m not such a comedy giant,” Brooks told a room full of TV critics earlier this year. “I’m 5-foot-6.
“There are guys not as funny, but they are bigger, and I think that counts.”
Brooks mostly stayed behind the scenes early in his career, allowing his ideas and concepts to be funneled through performers such as Sid Caesar.
“Sid Caesar was so good,” Brooks says in the doc. “That (S.O.B.) held me back because of his Promethean talent. I could have been out front doing it, but never as funny and as incredibly moving as Sid Caesar.”
Brooks’ face became recognizable through his famous “2000 Year Old Man” comedy routine with Carl Reiner, which they performed everywhere, in live shows and on TV. And then as time went on, Brooks popped up on-screen in his own movies more and more, moving from bit parts to leading roles.
“Well, it happened when Gene (Wilder) deserted me, I think it was Silent Movie,” Brooks told critics, recalling his 1976 film.
“He got a part somewhere. He went overseas. He wasn’t available and I got the money and I was ready to do Silent Movie. And I said, ‘Well, nobody talks, so I could get away with this.”
While every comedy career has its early struggles and ups and downs, things certainly worked out for Mel Brooks. He is one of only 14 entertainers to have achieved the coveted “EGOT” (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards).
“Being rather bizarre looking and being very short, I needed another tool so that I would be accepted,” Brooks says in the doc. “So I used comedy.”
Acceptance achieved, many times over.